School of Medicine lures Harvard neurologist

Six months after appointing a prominent Harvard doctor to direct the Yale Cancer Center, the University has lured another top researcher from Cambridge to head its neurology department.

David Hafler, a Harvard Medical School neurologist and an expert on the genetic basis of multiple sclerosis, was named the chief and chair of neurology at Yale–New Haven Hospital and Yale School of Medicine in July.

“He’s an outstanding recruit,” Medical School Dean Robert Alpern said in a telephone interview. “His research made him an outstanding candidate — there was never any question he was the best researcher of all the candidates we looked at.”

At Yale, Hafler will be charged with expanding the clinical neurology department, especially into his area of expertise — multiple sclerosis.

“I’m excited to be able to translate Yale’s excellence in science to the development of new therapies and to understanding disease,” he said.

In a telephone interview, Hafler cited the quality of the Yale School of Medicine’s faculty, the opportunities for creative, collaborative research, and the resources the school is able to offer despite the economic downturn as key factors in his decision to accept the position at Yale.

And as Hafler settles into New Haven, he will be encouraging others to join him. Alpern said Hafler has been allocated a significant amount of funding to allow him to recruit investigators from his Harvard lab and from other institutions.

In the interview, Hafler said a priority of his is to find new leadership for the neurology side of the Yale School of Medicine’s epilepsy program, which unexpectedly lost its co-director, world-renowned researcher and physician Susan Spencer, in May due to complications of an acute intestinal illness.

Hafler officially begins Sept. 1. A member of the Harvard Medical School faculty since 1984, he was a neurologist at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and the Jack, Sadie and David Breakstone professor of neurology at Harvard.

While at Harvard, he was a primary investigator of the Whole Genome Association Study, which in 2007 used an advanced gene-hunting method to discover two genetic variations that the study’s researchers believed could be at the genetic root of multiple sclerosis.

The research group he leads at Harvard, the Hafler Laboratory of Molecular Immunology, has also completed the largest replicated whole genome scan for multiple sclerosis. Hafler said he hopes to move his entire Harvard lab team to New Haven.

Also relocating to Yale is Hafler’s wife, Janet, who will become the medical school’s assistant dean for educational scholarship. Until approximately a year ago, she served as dean of educational development at the Tufts University School of Medicine and prior to that spent 19 years at Harvard Medical School.

Hafler’s appointment is the second major recruitment effort this year in which the medical school has successfully wooed a Harvard professor. On April 1, former Harvard professor Thomas Lynch ’82 MED ’86 was named the director of the Yale Cancer Center and physician in chief for the new Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale–New Haven Hospital, slated to open in October.

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